Monday 29 August 2016

Trust your Histogram

If you've been around decent caliber wildlife photographers for any length of time, you will no doubt have heard one of them admonish someone else to always watch their histogram. It's the final litmus test for ensuring our images come out as we intend in-the-field, right?


The important thing to remember is that you need to look at the HISTOGRAM specifically.
The actual graph plotted for the data contained in your actual image.

DON'T trust the version of the image you see on the LCD screen, though.
The back-of-camera LCD is far from a calibrated monitor on which to decide whether the colour or even apparent exposure of the image looks correct.

It's easy to fall back on pure image review and forget to rely on data interpretation. Yes, of course the content of the image is important if you are reviewing or double-checking your composition - what I am referring to is exposure checking, especially in tricky and challenging lighting conditions.

Consider this image - RAW, straight conversion, no processing applied.

If, at first glance, you thought that I had way underexposed this photo, you were correct.
Yet, I had done it on purpose!

The setting was a glorious misty sunrise on the last morning of the +Wild Eye Mana Pools photo safari I hosted in July (read the TRIP REPORT). When the sun rose behind the trees as a muted fiery ball, I knew that I wanted a photo with everything decently exposed (even the sun). So I purposely underexposed enough to protect the highlights and shadows from excessive clipping, knowing from experience what I would be able to pull back and rescue in processing. I shoot Nikon, and the specific settings might not correlate with how you would need to expose with other cameras, but I used these settings:

Nikon D800 with Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR-II Aperture: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/1000
ISO: 250
Exposure bias: -2/3

In this case, I specifically remember that I couldn't really see jack squat on my LCD in terms of composition or image content, the photo was simply too dark. I needed to trust my framing in the viewfinder and also my exposure based on histogram.

The resultant histogram:

Again you might think this is creeping up too much on the shadows and highlights ends of the histogram - and yet I posit to you that this is where knowing your gear comes in and knowing how much you can recover from certain tonal areas that may seem blown out at first.

A couple of delicate processing steps later:

In processing these photos I always try and go for a look & feel that would seem natural - if you were standing there looking into a hazy sunrise you would see detail, soft light and the scene would be oozing with mood. The original frame doesn't have that at face value, and we need to tease that out of the photo in processing. Remember that the human eye can process an equivalent of about 32 f-stops in one view, so a camera can never just capture the precise way in which we perceive a moody, high dynamic range scene like this.

It's easy to overcook this as well and make it look garishly unrealistic! 

The histogram now:

The brightest spots of the sun can be blown out - it's the sun after all.
The darkest shadows are not preventing me from enjoying the image for what is ought to be - a moody dawn in the forest.

The lesson?
Know your gear well enough to shoot on instinct. 
Know well enough what you want to capture to shoot on instinct.
If necessary, read the histogram and interpret what you need to change to bring you as close as possible to a USABLE image.

I hope this post has been of help to you.

Morkel Erasmus

Tuesday 2 August 2016

The Nutcracker Badger

It's 6 January 2016...early in the morning.

The sun has just risen, and we spent its rising with a lioness close to the Rooiputs waterhole in the Kalahari desert, more specifically, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that straddles the borders of South Africa and Botswana.

South Africa is experiencing a heat wave of sweaty proportions - normal summer temperatures here average around 45C, and this week it's been up to 54C most the shade. As we drove out of camp it was already 26C, pre-dawn.

Suddenly I spot a dark shape moving purposefully along the dry Nossob riverbed.
Honey Badger!! If you don't know what honey badgers are, they are pretty much the roughest, toughest buggers in the African bush.

This video might enlighten you...

Anyhow, finding a honey badger on a trip to the Kalahari is a special treat, and this early in the morning! We follow him as he scrounges around, digging for grub in the loose Kalahari sand.

"Nothing here..."

"How about here? I smell something!"

Promptly the badger dug up a small leopard tortoise! Right next to our vehicle (and we were the only people there).

The prey in itself brought its own set of challenges - how to break through the shell?
A tough nut to crack...

What followed is a lengthy process of the dexterous badger working his prey until he was able to pierce the shell of the tortoise, and get to the good stuff inside. Yes, it's sad for the tortoise, but it's the circle of life and it was fascinating to get to watch this "nutcracker" at work.

Suffice to say that the badger eventually got through the carapace of the tortoise.

That wasn't the end of the morning's activity, though!
As we are watching the badger feeding, my wife notices that there are two lionesses and two lion cubs walking by behind the about a Kalahari double whammy!

Let's leave the lions for another day - as they kept us busy for the rest of the morning.
I hope you enjoyed seeing these photos!
We have some video too - might edit and release it soon.

Keep well...

Morkel Erasmus